VannDa: Cambodian rap star delivers hard emotional truths on new project ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’

One of Cambodia’s most prominent young artists, VannDa builds on the astronomical success of his statement-making single ‘Time To Rise’ with a project that he calls a “mental health university”

As is customary for a music superstar to do in 2022, VannDa wiped his Instagram page clean when it came time to drum up anticipation for his new album ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’. The 25-year-old rapper erased (or archived) all the content that had been pored over by his 572,000 adoring followers, but then proceeded to make one single post on his feed: a candid collection of photos and video of himself taking deep, well-deserved naps.

After all, it’s hard work being the pride and joy of Cambodian popular music. “There’s definitely pressure and I’ve been working harder. This is the biggest project that I’ve ever done before,” VannDa later tells NME. “It’s my first time operating at this level… I’m excited even though there’s pressure, and I’m excited to show the fans what’s up.”

Last Friday, he did just that with ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’, the first half of the sequel to his 2020 debut ‘$kull the Album’. If life is a movie, as the saying goes, VannDa’s current imperial phase is more like a TV show, and this project its first batch of 15 episodes. And in characteristic ‘second album’ fashion, these productions are polished yet unpredictable, these songs riveting – and sometimes heart-rending – in their honesty.

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VannDa
Credit: Press

The way VannDa openly reflects on his eventful ride from a shaved coconut seller to a famous rapper on ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ would be notable in any context. But his determination to openly address mental health issues – rapping about depression and anxiety from the opening track, ‘Sometimes’ – is especially remarkable when one considers the way his profile skyrocketed in 2021.

VannDa was already one of Cambodia’s most exciting contemporary artists when he released the song ‘Time To Rise’ last March. A collaboration with Master Kong Nay, one of Cambodia’s most revered musicians, ‘Time To Rise’ wove the legend’s resonant voice and traditional Khmer instrumentation with a head-nodding hip-hop beat, slick ad libs and VannDa’s calm, confident bars about heritage, history and excellence. Its music video, shot amid the hallowed treasures and artefacts displayed in the National Museum of Cambodia, has accumulated an astounding 94 million YouTube views to date.

“Cambodian people have lost so much,” VannDa says soberly, reflecting on the Khmer Rouge and the destruction the genocide wrought on the country’s art and culture. “I want to show both the Cambodian people and the world that Cambodian music deserves to be on the map, and that culture is a treasure we have to protect. We didn’t have a chance to do that in the past, and now, I want to protect it.”

NME meets VannDa in June over Zoom, the star himself ensconced in a hoodie, fidgeting with sunglasses that he doesn’t take off for the hourlong interview. Speaking mainly in Khmer with a dash of English, he sits beside Laura Mam – the co-founder and CEO of his label Baramey Production, and a pop star in her own right – who translates his answers and occasionally NME’s questions.

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The roster of Baramey pulled together to help VannDa make ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ a reality. The label had first tried working on the album by sending files back and forth, but the process turned out disjointed and dissatisfying. So the whole crew decamped to a villa in Kep province, where they hunkered down for a two-week album camp.

“I want to show both the Cambodian people and the world that Cambodian music deserves to be on the map”

“That was my first time working with lots of different people,” VannDa remembers. “I’ve always been a loner doing everything myself, including the producing, mixing and mastering.” At Villa de Skull, as they came to call it, producers, singers and songwriters divided themselves into three different stations, which VannDa would flit between. As the decision-making “mastermind”, he got a taste for curation and arrangement. “It made me know myself a lot better because I was in a setting where I had to challenge myself by knowing what parts [of the music] I really wanted.”

And what has VannDa learned about himself? “That I’m the type of artist that’s willing to learn anything… I’ll try anything and that’s made me a fearless artist in the process.”

He adds: “It’s more than music, because I’m speaking about my real experiences. There are no lies in the album. I’m truthful, and I feel motivated by speaking the truth.”

‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ does make room for swagger and braggadocio, like the bumping singles ‘Bok Kalo’ and ‘Catch Me If You Can’. But VannDa wants you to take the hard truths first: the project is frontloaded with brooding bangers filled with real talk from VannDa about sacrifice, betrayal and anguish.

Recording these dark, intense songs in the tranquil environs of Villa de Skull gave the songs “a new flavour” – what VannDa calls a “dark freshness”. Nowhere is that more evident than on the pair of songs ‘Day Dreamer’ and ‘Night Thinker’. On the former track, VannDa casts his mind back to 2016, when he left his home of Sihanoukville for Phnom Penh to chase his music dreams. “I was dreaming of another version of myself that was under no pressure and was just happy every day – a fantasy version of myself.”

“I’ll try anything and that’s made me a fearless artist in the process”

And on the latter song, VannDa has reached the big city. He already misses his mum and dad, and big, existential questions have begun to weigh on him. “I needed to think about the meaning of life and what this was all about.” As a guitar weeps and mournful strings ring out, VannDa vows to make his painful departure worth it for his parents’ sake: “I don’t know when / I could relieve you of your struggles / Let you take the rest that you deserve / I can’t afford to be a coward / You must be sick of giving me time / This is the essay that I conjured.

VannDa is calling ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ a “mental health university” – a term that started out as a joke but solidified into a serious description of the album. On ‘$kull the Album’ in 2020, “I was reacting to my own mental health and talking about how to deal with it in that given moment,” he says.

“Whereas in ‘Skull 2’, I feel like I was able to complete the ‘university’ portion of it, where you come out of it with lessons on how to deal with people and difficult situations – how to deal with pain and life. I feel like a teacher in a university, teaching people how to deal with their deep emotional issues!”

Though ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ is out now, the hard work is only beginning: later this year VannDa will embark on a tour of Cambodia and then release ‘Skull 2 (Season 2)’. Having gained an international audience with ‘Time To Rise’ and notched a boundary-crossing collab with Thai rappers F.HERO, 1MILL and SPRITE on the single ‘Run The Town’ earlier this year, VannDa has his sights set on eventually going global – no matter what it takes.

“I’m sure there are people watching my footsteps,” he says. “Many artists have dreamed on going international. It’s a longtime dream, a shared dream. The road I’m on right now is full of bumps and difficult to build. But I’m working hard because I intend on building a smoother road so the artists after me can ride it easier and faster… This is for my people, my country. I want to represent on behalf of Cambodia.”

VannDa’s ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ is out now via Baramey Production

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